Instead of the usual biopic song and dance of attempting to give audiences a glimpse inside the mind of a tortured genius, Milos Forman’s Amadeus does something far more interesting: it digs deeper into into the mind of a near-genius — someone who can fly high enough to see the stars, but will never reach them. And even better, it asks how this man who wants so badly to be amazing will react to the constant presence of a colleague who actually is. This story of Mozart is really the story of Salieri — and of a heavenly talent that both inspires and infects the mind of one whose passionate prayers have not been answered.
Kicking off with a withered, ancient Salieri, who now resides in an archaic mental asylum (and has even failed in his attempts to commit suicide), Amadeus flashes back to depict a series of events that start with Mozart’s initial arrival to the Viennese court, and continue up through his unceremonious death — a tale told by the man who both loved and despised him most. Along the way we see Salieri’s bitterness and jealousy fester over the crass, crude vessel God has chosen for such soulful compositions, even as his adoration for the man’s music is unwavering. Spite ultimately wins out; “Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able. I will ruin Your incarnation.”
It’s hard not to sympathize with Amadeus‘ version of Salieri, just a bit. After all, the man has devoted his entire life to refining his skill and attaining notoriety through it, his passion so fervent as to even maintain a childhood vow to God that places some fairly heavy restrictions on himself: “Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate Your glory through music and be celebrated myself. Make me famous through the world, dear God. Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote. In return, I will give You my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life.” And he follows through on that; of course, the self-serving bent lessens the purity, but nevertheless, anyone who has had an unshakable dream understands the unrelenting need to pursue it — and the torture that can be felt in not attaining it.
By the time we meet him in his prime, Salieri believes he has achieved his goal, having risen from humble beginnings to the illustrious position of court composer under Emperor Joseph II. He is indeed successful in his work, respected by his peers and audiences alike, and seemingly content in his talents. He is even excited by the prospect of meeting Mozart, whose musical career he has admired from a distance. Why? Because despite his enormous sense of pride, at heart Salieri is sincere in his love of music. Also, he has no idea how much his perspective on genius is about to change.
Mozart’s infantile whining, vast arrogance, and scatological humor can’t hide the extraordinary talent; “This was a music I had never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.” While Salieri has received plenty of accolades during his respectable career, he knows that nothing he has done can measure up, and Amadeus constantly reminds him of it with marvelous improvisations, impeccable first drafts, and powerful operatic storytelling that only occasionally has “too many notes.” He is cursed with being able to recognize genius, and the lack of it in himself — a humbling blow for a man so dedicated. On top of that, it all appears to come so easy for Mozart; he creates works of incredible skill seemingly with no effort at all.
How could this not inspire burning jealousy? Even hatred? Salieri has devoted his life to perfecting his craft (at least how he tells it), believing that his hard work and sacrifice was payment to fulfill his end of a spiritual bargain. Then, some young punk waltzes in and shows him that all that effort, all that toil, was for nothing — he’s mediocre in comparison. A crushing blow, surely, and born out of a desire he (and anyone else who has ever felt a ‘calling’) had no control over. “All I ever wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing… and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn’t want me to praise Him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?”
Perhaps it was to teach a lesson of humility — that there’s always someone better than you, always room for improvement. Or, perhaps Salieri is right that God is laughing at him from on high, having a bit of fun mocking his pitiful creation by offending every sensibility He Himself instilled in the man, while at the same time rubbing it in his face with sublime compositions that only one such as Salieri could fully appreciate. The Lord works in mysterious ways. But Amadeus isn’t a retelling of the Book of Job; Salieri’s suffering is born out of his own insecurity, not forces of nature conspiring against him. Though he in some ways sees himself as a victim, pranked by a cruel deity, it’s only a self-invented interpretation. Salieri tortures himself, and thus even Mozart’s death is not good enough.
As he sits in his chair, grown frail over the many years, Salieri laments his fading into obscurity while “the Creature” endures: “Your merciful God. He destroyed His own beloved rather than let a mediocrity share in the smallest part of His glory. He killed Mozart and kept me alive to torture! 32 years of torture! 32 years of slowly watching myself become extinct. My music growing fainter, all the time fainter till no one plays it at all, and his…” Even now he cannot overcome his bitterness, cannot come to terms with the lacking in his own ability. His imagined persecution continues, a casualty of misplaced passion.
Yes, Amadeus contains plenty of Mozart moments, but rarely do we get a peek into the genius’ method or madness beyond obvious quirks that can only be pondered from a distance. Instead, the brilliant composer serves to provide a fascinating contrast with which to explore a man who could never shine as bright. Like Salieri, we are tantalized by a heavenly greatness we will never reach; Amadeus considers the mind of one who cannot accept that.